Suffering and Self-Pity, Part 1: Suffering with Dignity

Self-pity feels good. Self-pity whispers to you, “You have every right to feel bad for yourself. After all, you have not gotten what is coming to you, what you are entitled to. You deserve better than this, and others should agree.” Self-pity often progresses to sympathy-seeking where we want others to appreciate our suffering, offer comfort, and praise us for our bravery. Feeling sorry for yourself makes you want others to feel sorry for you too. Your suffering seems worse than everyone else’s and your concerns become paramount. You want everyone else to put your suffering at the top of his list of concerns.

If this description does not seem quite ugly to you, then you may have missed the point. Self-pity is ugly. It is an ugly expression of a self-centered heart that has turned its focus away from the beauty and glory of God. It elevates the creature and his concerns above God and His designs. And yet, the temptation to self-pity seems so justified at the time we succumb to it.

I write this as one who has at times battled self-pity regarding suffering. I have experienced the temptation to think, “Woe is me.” I know what it’s like to hear the small voice that says, “Grimace a little more, and people will take notice.” All this while trying to truly deal with my genuine physical suffering. And there’s the rub. How do you experience genuine suffering, pain, disappointment, illness, and weakness without feeling sorry for yourself, magnifying your suffering, and trying to draw the attention of others to your situation for the purpose of garnering sympathy?

Am I recommending that you paste a smile on your face and pretend that you are not suffering? No. There is no virtue in pretending. Your church, family and friends need to know when you are genuinely suffering because they are called to help, serve and alleviate your suffering whenever they can. To hide your suffering and pretend that it doesn’t exist is the sure path to self-pity. So how can we suffer without self-pity?

When we turn to the Bible, we see that Job, David, and Paul provide instruction, and Jesus sets the example. Job is foundational to understanding the proper attitude in suffering, David the proper struggle through suffering, and the Apostle Paul the proper attitude about suffering. Jesus is our model, as he perfectly endured suffering, providing a pattern for us.

When God brought suffering upon righteous Job seemingly out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, Job responded by outwardly displaying his grief (Job 1:20-22). At the same time, he did not claim any entitlement to comfort when he noted that he came into the world naked and would go out naked. In other words, he had no possessions of his own and therefore could lay claim to none. He also recognized God’s sovereign rights over his life to do as He pleased. And in the midst of all this he blessed the name of the Lord. He refused to charge God with being unjust or unloving. He accepted the suffering from God as freely as he had accepted his former prosperity.

When God allowed Job to further suffer excruciating pain, he sat in the ash heap, clearly not trying to put on a brave face (Job 2:8-10). The point is that Job’s outward expression of suffering was proportionate to his genuine suffering. He wasn’t trying to get anyone’s sympathy; he was just trying to gain some relief from the sores. He neither magnified nor minimized his pain. And when his wife spoke what many would consider to be rational words, Job refused to think in a merely human fashion. Job saw his suffering in the context of God’s sovereign right over his life as his creator. There was no sense of entitlement in his words. As the Book of Job progresses, Job seeks answers, asking “why” more than twenty times. But God never tells Job “why.” As Job noted earlier, God can do what he wants.

When we move to David’s life, we see a full body of literature expressing his struggle through suffering. In the Psalms, David asks “why” only a few times, but his struggle is just as real as Job’s. He feels forsaken (Ps. 22:1), and feels that God stands far off from him (10:1). He feels overwhelmed with fear (55:4-5), he despairs (69:20), tosses and turns and weeps (56:8). Yet, after crying out to God, David always comes back to the goodness and faithfulness of God. David shows us that it is good to pour your heart out to God (62:8), to tell him all your troubles and complain to him (142:2). When we are finished, however, we need to bring ourselves back to the goodness and faithfulness of God.

When we move to the New Testament, the example of Jesus ought to be the guiding mindset in our approach to suffering. Jesus came for the express purpose of suffering and dying. His whole incarnation was directed to this end. And the way he suffered is designed to show us how to suffer. First Peter 3:21 reminds us, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Peter goes on to say that Jesus suffered with dignity by continuing to entrust himself to him who judges justly (3:23).

This is the key to suffering with dignity and not self-pity—trusting the justice of God, the goodness of God, the wisdom of God. Self-pity tends to move a person away from trust in God toward resentment of God. If God is bringing the hurt in my life, how can I trust him? And yet, to whom else but my loving, just Father can I entrust my life? Only when we practice this kind of trust will we avoid self-pity and suffer with dignity.

In Part 2 of this essay, we will look at the Apostle Paul’s suffering, and see how he avoided self-pity and sympathy-seeking. I will also present a diagnostic to help us evaluate ourselves for any sign of self-pity.

Are You a Word-Centered or a Spirit-Centered Christian?

A choice commonly placed before believers at some time in their Christian experience is the suggestion, or even demand that they center their lives on the Bible, or alternately, on the Holy Spirit. Either they live their lives according to the written Word, or they live guided by the Spirit. This great divide has never been more obvious than today. Some Christian traditions emphasize strict adherence to the Bible, while others believe such an approach is too mechanical, and would rather be led experientially by the Spirit. Which approach is correct? A look back into history may help.

While most evangelicals associate Martin Luther with the Lutheran church and erroneous views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (and rightly so), Luther was one of the first Reformers to challenge the authority of the Roman Catholic Church by declaring the primary authority of Scripture over the papacy. Luther was Word-centered and demanded that everything be judged by the Word of God (the fact that he failed to do so completely is clear, but anachronistic).

In contrast, the radical reformer Thomas Müntzer emphasized a Spirit-centered Christian life. He stressed an inner-oriented hearing by man that would lead him from bondage to freedom. For Müntzer, “the God who speaks is the God who is experienced directly in the heart” (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, Blackwell, 1996, 151).

For many Christians today, this sounds appealing. Who doesn’t want to experience God directly in the heart? Who doesn’t want a dynamic walk of faith where God speaks directly to you? But this approach also has a dark side. It appeals to our narcissism and rebellion by doing away with an objective authority for truth and making our own individual experience with God supreme. The example of Müntzer is instructive because of the direction that his Spirit-centered theology took. Unmoored from Scripture, he began to teach that the knowledge of God was not teachable, but could only be conferred in connection with a spirit-worked faith saturated with experience. Thus, he called for a reversal from the traditional movement from the external to internal. He concluded that the living Word of God must be heard from God’s own mouth and not from books, not even the Bible.

This is always where Spirit-centered theology leads. Luther was right to demand a Word-centered faith. While a Word-centered faith can at times become cold and clinical, with little evidence of the Spirit or His fruits, without the foundation of the authority of Scripture over experience a person’s Christian life will be built upon sinking sand. There are plenty of examples of supposed Word-centered churches, ministries and people with little evidence of the Spirit of God. But life that is properly centered on the Word will exhibit both the stability of revelation and the vitality of the Spirit.

How can you tell which you are? Ask yourself a few questions:

Þ   Do you savor every chance to read, meditate on, memorize and apply the written Word of God? Or does your Christian life consist primarily of “talking to God,” with little attention to the Word?

Þ   Is it difficult to go a day or two without the Word? Or do you find it hard to get yourself to open and read the Bible?

Þ   Do your prayers flow out of what you read in the Scriptures today? Or do they revolve primarily around yourself, your problems, and your concerns?

Þ   Are you right now pursuing some intentional study of something in the Bible? Or is your Christian walk a passive “go with the flow”?

It has been my experience that Spirit-centered Christians tend to judge their own spiritual maturity far more positively than perhaps they should, and the reason is simple: they are judging everything by feeling. While they claim that they are being led by the Spirit, and not feelings, their faith is as subjective as any theological liberal. They have forgotten a fundamental biblical and theological truth:

The Spirit works primarily through the Word!

That is, the choice of being Word-centered or Spirit-centered is not an “either-or” but a “both-and” with the Word being primary. We must be Spirit-centered people, but that only comes through being Word-centered. Paul captures this truth in 2 Corinthians 3:18 when he speaks of the reading of God’s Word:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord [in the written Word], are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Transformation by the Spirit only comes through beholding Christ in the Word. The Scriptures must be primary in a believer’s life. It is only through being Word-centered that we can be assured of the truth AND live a Spirit-filled life.

The Benefits of Weakness and Suffering

No one likes illness, suffering, or pain, yet the results of these things can have eternal value. It has been said that if dependence upon God is the objective, then weakness is an advantage. Weakness and suffering have tremendous advantage for our salvation and sanctification. The sixteenth-century theologian, Theodore Beza attributed his conversion to a severe illness and the consequent fear of death:

He approached me through a sickness so severe that I despaired of my life. Seeing his terrible judgment before me, I could not think what to do with my wretched life. Finally, after endless suffering of body and soul, God showed pity upon His miserable lost servant and consoled me so that I could not doubt His mercy. With a thousand tears, I renounced my former self, implored His forgiveness, renewed my oath to serve His true church, and in sum gave myself wholly over to Him. So the vision of death threatening my soul awakened in me the desire for a true and everlasting life. So sickness was for me the beginning of true health (letter to Melchior Wolmar, May 12, 1560).

In a similar vein, the apostle Paul spoke of the benefit of weakness and suffering in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

If we love eternal things more than our temporary comfort and convenience, we will be willing, like Paul, to suffer for our own good and the glory of God. This is what God has been teaching me today!

Lessons I Learned from My Kidney Transplant

Thanks to everyone around the world who was praying last Thursday for my kidney transplant at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP). The doctors said that it was a very successful transplant and they are confident my body will not reject the kidney. My brother-in-law, Tom (the donor), was able to come home from the hospital Saturday and I was able to come home Sunday. The kidney is functioning quite well and producing quite abundantly!

My recovery will take 5-8 weeks, and during that time I can’t lift anything over 10 lbs., so no housework for awhile. I will be on about sixteen different medications for the first month, and then will continue on immuno-suppressant drugs the rest of my life. This means that I will have to be careful about exposure to germs and I will be more susceptible to cancer than before. For the first few weeks I have to test, monitor and record a number of symptoms almost every hour of the day, and I have to make trips to HUP several times a week for the first month.

The whole experience was amazing, and I learned so much from it. I thought I would summarize a few of the best lessons I learned:

1. God’s design of the human body is incredible

Throughout the past six years since I was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease I have learned so much about kidneys that astound me. Almost everyone is born with two kidneys (some have a horseshoe kidney where the two have been fused together in the womb), but only need one. The kidneys are a redundant system in the body, and when one is removed, the remaining kidney simply assumes the function of the removed kidney. A person with one kidney functions just as well as someone with two.

Additionally, the way transplants are done is amazing. Tom’s kidney was removed through a small incision around his navel and three small slits in his side. My kidneys (called “the native kidneys”) were left in me, as removing them would be unnecessary surgery. Tom’s kidney was inserted into my abdomen just below and to the right of my navel where it was connected directly to blood vessels and my bladder. After implanting my kidney, the surgeon waited a few minutes, and the kidney actually began to produce urine before he began to sew me up. The immuno-suppressant drugs that they began to administer during surgery trick the body into moving the filtering function of the body away from the native kidneys and to the new kidney. My 9-inch incision was sealed, not with stitches or staples, but 24 steri-strips that can withstand showering immediately after surgery. The most pain I felt during the entire four days in the hospital (beside some abdominal soreness) was when they removed the very sticky tape holding in my IV’s when I was discharged. Simply put, the technology of organ transplantation is astounding.

2. God’s gift of common grace is a blessing to believers

None of the doctors, surgeons, or nurses that I met were believers as far as I know. I was able to talk freely about my faith, but didn’t get much response of interest. Yet, the skill of these medical professionals was amazing. My surgeon, Dr. Ali Naji, is originally from Iran and has been at HUP for 40 years doing transplants. Everyone else involved in my surgery and care (close to 40 people) were professional, encouraging and obviously very skilled. Because of God’s common grace, unbelievers are able to use their God-given gifts of intellect to become great physicians. Although they can’t account for their abilities, unbelievers are able to use them for the good of others.

3. People are depraved at their core

While I was walking slowly around the transplant ward as advised, someone walked into my hospital room and stole my cell phone. Unbelievable!

4. Our lives and health are completely under the sovereign care of God

When the anesthesiologist put me under in the operating room, I was unable to do anything whatsoever to help myself. My life and health, however, were safely in God’s hands. The surgeons’ hands were being guided completely by God, as were the actions of the anesthesiologists and other staff. All the various complications that could arise in a surgery (and there are dozens if not hundreds) were being carefully directed by our loving Father. This reassurance makes surgery a no-risk event in God’s eyes, even though from our perspective there is great risk. God’s sovereignty is the only security we ever have.

5. The prayers of the saints are the most precious comfort to a suffering soul

To know that people all around the world were praying for me (thanks, internet!) was the greatest comfort I had going into the surgery. I was able to tell the surgical team that they were being prayed for, and I think they appreciated it.

6. The community of the church supporting those who suffer is the greatest help one could hope for

Since this whole process began accelerating last summer, I have met several kidney patients with no support system, no family nearby, and no one to help them. This is inconceivable since I have depended so much on my family, my church and my friends. My wife did not have to sit alone during the 8 hours I was gone from her because of our pastor and Christian friends who came and sat for hours to keep her company. The church is designed to be a community, and its support is invaluable.

7. A godly wife is a man’s greatest possible encouragement when he has to take the role of the weak partner in the relationship

I can’t praise my wife enough for her patience, endurance and care for me these past six years. She really meant it when she said, “for better or worse, in sickness and in health.” Since I have been home she has worked tirelessly and through the night to make sure I am comfortable, that my medications and doctors’ visits are organized, and that I am resting. She has done this with such a cheerful and willing attitude that I hope I can serve her in the same way on a daily basis.

So, thanks again to everyone who prayed for me. Please continue to pray for my recovery and that my body will continue to accept the kidney during the transition period. God bless you all!

A Most Needed Word for Today: J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism Revisited

J. Gresham Machen’s classic, Christianity and Liberalism, was one of the most influential books of its time when it was first published in 1923. Many consider it to be a challenge to theological liberalism that was never answered by liberals. Machen’s clarity and conviction have made his dissection of sentimentalized liberalism a must read, even a century later. In the new edition (Eerdmans, 2009), the present academic dean at Machen’s Westminster Theological Seminary, Carl Trueman, writes a foreword that reminds us of the enduring value of this important work. Trueman, who is always spot-on with his critiques, aptly diagnoses the need for a rereading of Machen:

This [Machen’s critique of sentimentalized religion] is perhaps where Machen still speaks most obviously to our own times. While some would claim that sentimentalism has been trumped by postmodern cynicism, it is arguable that such is not the case. The saccharine schmaltz that fills many light entertainment programs is a stable of popular culture; commercials that play on romanticized notions of family, even if they add a hint of irony here and there, are still meant to pull at the heart strings and resonate with something deep inside the audience that encourages us to buy into the dream. And all the talk that comes from some circles about Christianity’s not being a set of beliefs but a way of life, that we should not believe in Jesus but follow him, seems to arise out of a view of Christianity as sentiment, and even to bear uncanny linguistic resemblance to precisely the kind of nineteenth-century liberalism against which Forsyth, Barth and Machen railed with such passion and persistence.

Further, one has only to open a typical book of contemporary praise songs or listen to a sermon by a typical televangelist to see how the values of the world pervade the liturgics and the homiletics of contemporary church life. One might also mention the many pop-evangelical preachers for whom Christianity and the interests of a particular nation or a particular political ideology are one and the same. Again, this jingoism is just another kind of sentimentalism, and it is alive and well today as it was in the days when Machen wrote his little book (xiii-xiv).

Trueman’s words are directed at all the sentimentalizing of Christianity, something fundamentalists and evangelicals would be wise to heed. Any attempt to tug at the heart strings through styles of music or preaching flirts dangerously close to the heart of liberalism. This is not to deny the genuine place of emotion, but emotion should always be tied directly to a faithful exposition of the Word and a clear proclamation of sound doctrine. Too many preachers, evangelists and church planters are still getting a heavy dose of sentimentalism in their training. They learn a certain style of oration that borders on and wanders into the exploitation of a congregation’s emotions, tricks any huckster learns early on. Paul decried this methodology in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5 where he rejected the oratorical manipulations of the Sophists of his day, lest the message be obscured by the medium.

Fundamentalism and evangelicalism need the robust kind of thinking exemplified in Christianity and Liberalism more than ever before. The reforms of fundamentalism that seemed to have been swelling in the 1990’s have all but died, as many ministries have re-entrenched into a new traditionalism. Sentimentalism seems to be on the rise again in response to the uncertainty of the times, especially since the 2008 election. If fundamentalists and evangelicals are not careful, they will drift closer to a new old liberalism that is only apparently different from that of Machen’s day. And then those who think they are the furthest from liberals will find themselves bearing a remarkable resemblance to them. Trueman concludes:

Thus the world of today is perhaps not so different from that faced by Forsyth, Barth, and Machen. Human beings still try to make God in their own image, still project their own values onto the divine, and still operate as theologians of glory, to use Luther’s famous term from his Heidelberg Disputation.

Yet in closing this introduction, I must mark one significant difference between the argument of Machen and the arguments of Forsyth and Barth: for Machen, the only consistent way to oppose sentimentalism in religion was to maintain the truth of Christianity as an historical religion; and that could be done only on the basis of a Bible that was authoritative because it was divinely, verbally inspired. Anything less made Christianity uncertain, and Christian theology little more than those bits of the Bible’s teaching with which the individual feels comfortable. A matter, indeed, of taste and sentiment.

On this point he offers a fundamentally different approach to Christianity from that found in Forsyth and Barth, and the significance of this cannot be overestimated, particularly in the current context where a revival of evangelical appropriation of Barth’s theology is seen by many as offering prophetic possibilities for the church—possibilities that, if Machen is right, will ultimately prove at best inadequate for the task of truly confronting the world’s wisdom and at worst an idiom for the very expression of such (xiv-xv).

Don’t Waste Your Kidney Disease, Part 2

As some of you know, I am undergoing a kidney transplant today, Thursday, June 3. After six years of living with Chronic Kidney Disease, God has provided a donor in my brother-in-law. As I approach the surgery I wanted to convey what God has taught me in the blessed years since I was diagnosed. As I read John Piper’s essay, “Don’t Waste Your Cancer,” I realized that I could not possibly improve upon his deeply biblical and theological words, so I have shamelessly copied the essay, with the exception of inserting the words “kidney disease” where Piper originally wrote “cancer.”

6. You will waste your kidney disease if you spend too much time reading about kidney disease and not enough time reading about God.

It is not wrong to know about kidney disease. Ignorance is not a virtue. But the lure to know more and more and the lack of zeal to know God more and more is symptomatic of unbelief. Kidney disease is meant to waken us to the reality of God. It is meant to put feeling and force behind the command, “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord” (Hosea 6:3). It is meant to waken us to the truth of Daniel 11:32, “The people who know their God shall stand firm and take action.” It is meant to make unshakable, indestructible oak trees out of us: “His delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (Psalm 1:2). What a waste of kidney disease if we read day and night about kidney disease and not about God.

7. You will waste your kidney disease if you let it drive you into solitude instead of deepen your relationships with manifest affection.

When Epaphroditus brought the gifts to Paul sent by the Philippian church he became ill and almost died. Paul tells the Philippians, “He has been longing for you all and has been distressed because you heard that he was ill” (Philippians 2:26-27). What an amazing response! It does not say they were distressed that he was ill, but that he was distressed because they heard he was ill. That is the kind of heart God is aiming to create with kidney disease: a deeply affectionate, caring heart for people. Don’t waste your kidney disease by retreating into yourself.

8. You will waste your kidney disease if you grieve as those who have no hope.

Paul used this phrase in relation to those whose loved ones had died: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). There is a grief at death. Even for the believer who dies, there is temporary loss—loss of body, and loss of loved ones here, and loss of earthly ministry. But the grief is different—it is permeated with hope. “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). Don’t waste your kidney disease grieving as those who don’t have this hope.

9. You will waste your kidney disease if you treat sin as casually as before.

Are your besetting sins as attractive as they were before you had kidney disease? If so you are wasting your kidney disease. Kidney disease is designed to destroy the appetite for sin. Pride, greed, lust, hatred, unforgiveness, impatience, laziness, procrastination—all these are the adversaries that kidney disease is meant to attack. Don’t just think of battling against kidney disease. Also think of battling with kidney disease. All these things are worse enemies than kidney disease. Don’t waste the power of kidney disease to crush these foes. Let the presence of eternity make the sins of time look as futile as they really are. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25).

10. You will waste your kidney disease if you fail to use it as a means of witness to the truth and glory of Christ.

Christians are never anywhere by divine accident. There are reasons for why we wind up where we do. Consider what Jesus said about painful, unplanned circumstances: “They will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness” (Luke 21:12 -13). So it is with kidney disease. This will be an opportunity to bear witness. Christ is infinitely worthy. Here is a golden opportunity to show that he is worth more than life. Don’t waste it.

In your kidney disease, you will need your brothers and sisters to witness to the truth and glory of Christ, to walk with you, to live out their faith beside you, to love you. And you can do same with them and with all others, becoming the heart that loves with the love of Christ, the mouth filled with hope to both friends and strangers.

Remember you are not left alone. You will have the help you need. “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

Don’t Waste Your Kidney Disease, Part 1

As some of you know, I will be undergoing a kidney transplant Thursday, June 3. After six years of living with Chronic Kidney Disease, God has provided a donor in my brother-in-law. As I approach the surgery I wanted to convey what God has taught me in the blessed years since I was diagnosed. As I read John Piper’s essay, “Don’t Waste Your Cancer,” I realized that I could not improve upon his deeply biblical and theological words, so I have shamelessly copied the essay, with the exception of inserting the words “kidney disease” where Piper originally wrote “cancer.”

I write this on the eve of a kidney transplant. I believe in God’s power to heal—by miracle and by medicine. I believe it is right and good to pray for both kinds of healing. Kidney disease is not wasted when it is healed by God. He gets the glory and that is why kidney disease exists. So not to pray for healing may waste your kidney disease. But healing is not God’s plan for everyone. And there are many other ways to waste your kidney disease. I am praying for myself and for you that we will not waste this pain.

1. You will waste your kidney disease if you do not believe it is designed for you by God.

It will not do to say that God only uses our kidney disease but does not design it. What God permits, he permits for a reason. And that reason is his design. If God foresees molecular developments becoming kidney disease, he can stop it or not. If he does not, he has a purpose. Since he is infinitely wise, it is right to call this purpose a design. Satan is real and causes many pleasures and pains. But he is not ultimate. So when he strikes Job with boils (Job 2:7), Job attributes it ultimately to God (2:10) and the inspired writer agrees: “They . . . comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). If you don’t believe your kidney disease is designed for you by God, you will waste it.

2. You will waste your kidney disease if you believe it is a curse and not a gift.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). “There is no enchantment against Jacob, no divination against Israel” (Numbers 23:23). “The Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor. No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).

3. You will waste your kidney disease if you seek comfort from your odds rather than from God.

The design of God in your kidney disease is not to train you in the rationalistic, human calculation of odds. The world gets comfort from their odds. Not Christians. Some count their chariots (percentages of survival) and some count their horses (side effects of treatment), but we trust in the name of the Lord our God (Psalm 20:7). God’s design is clear from 2 Corinthians 1:9, “We felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” The aim of God in your kidney disease (among a thousand other good things) is to knock props out from under our hearts so that we rely utterly on him.

4. You will waste your kidney disease if you refuse to think about death.

We will all die, if Jesus postpones his return. Not to think about what it will be like to leave this life and meet God is folly. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning [a funeral] than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” How can you lay it to heart if you won’t think about it? Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” Numbering your days means thinking about how few there are and that they will end. How will you get a heart of wisdom if you refuse to think about this? What a waste, if we do not think about death.

5. You will waste your kidney disease if you think that “beating” kidney disease means staying alive rather than cherishing Christ.

Satan’s and God’s designs in your kidney disease are not the same. Satan designs to destroy your love for Christ. God designs to deepen your love for Christ. Kidney disease does not win if you die. It wins if you fail to cherish Christ. God’s design is to wean you off the breast of the world and feast you on the sufficiency of Christ. It is meant to help you say and feel, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And to know that therefore, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 3:8; 1:21).

Why Legalism Fuels and is Fueled by the Insecurity of the Times, Part 2

What happens to people who feel that they must earn their standing with God? They seek help in a number of ways. One common strategy is to erect new standards of righteousness that are at least theoretically attainable. By setting up external markers, those who believe they must perform certain works or maintain certain standards not required by Scripture find a measure of security in this “attainable righteousness.” Keeping a list of rules becomes familiar quickly, even though the rules are difficult to maintain.

Another strategy to which people resort is more extreme, but it follows naturally from the first. At the beginning of the Reformation, the strategy of veneration of relics became the preferred method of improving one’s standing with God. Luther’s protector, Prince Frederick the Wise had assembled one of the most impressive relic collections in Europe—over 19,000 pieces. Frederick’s collection included a (supposed) piece of the burning bush, soot from the fiery furnace, milk from Mary, and a piece of Jesus’ crib. Touching or viewing the relics allegedly brought one closer to God, conveyed grace, and shortened one’s time in purgatory. In addition, saints were made patrons for every human demand. How could people sink to such depths of superstition and error? Historian Carter Lindberg explains:

Insecure about salvation, people attempted to guarantee it by capturing mediators between themselves and God. Why did people throw themselves into such a piety of achievement? Why was the treadmill of religious performance thought to be the path to security and certainty of salvation? Perhaps because in times of crisis people tend to yearn for the “good old days,” and try harder to emulate what they think they were. Hidden behind the late medieval surge in piety there was an oppressive uncertainty about salvation together with the longing for it (The European Reformations, Blackwell, 1996, 61).

Now, I am not suggesting that all legalists have gone to the same lengths that people did in the late medieval period. But some certainly have. Relics of a sort appear when a particular college is the only school that a church will recommend. When this happens, a subtle message is sent that a good standing with God can only be obtained by graduating from that college. Another relic of modern fundamentalism is the veneration of certain men for the position they hold, whether it be a college president, the pastor of a big church or ministry, or the author of a book. Somehow these highly visible personalities are viewed as existing on a higher plane. I have watched the fawning over some of these men, and I wonder how this is any different than the medieval veneration of saints. A rather extreme example is the overt promotion of relics at the pastors conferences at First Baptist in Hammond, IN under Jack Hyles in the 1990’s. Prizes were awarded to those who brought the most attendees, including John R. Rice’s car, Jack Hyles’ ring, and other strange items attached to fundamentalist saints (for the record, I think Rice would have turned over in his grave at his post-mortem veneration by many fundamentalists).

So, from where does all this legalism spring? My contention is that it is partially fueled by the insecurity of the times. As people feel more anxious about the uncertainty of life, they naturally turn to anything that might provide security. For religious people of all kinds, acts of self-righteousness and veneration of relics of some sort seem to be common responses. Christians can fall into these practices too, if they do not have a strong grasp of sound doctrine, especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Without a settled assurance based on the imputed righteousness of Christ, even true Christians will begin to seek other means of security. This, in turn, fuels greater insecurity as the very extra-biblical standards they set up become unattainable to the average Christian.

Legalism is a vicious cycle, a constant treadmill that always increases in speed. The only solution is to jump off the treadmill onto the firm ground of grace. With the increasing uncertainty of our world, we should expect to see more similarities between our day and the spectacle of the late medieval times. May God give us a new reformation of love for sound doctrine that will ground us in the truth and guard our hearts and minds!